Crossing Over: Disney-Pixar’s 'Coco' is a spirited take on Mexico's Day of the Dead

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Expectations run high for Coco, the new animated feature from Pixar. Opening on Nov. 22, its trailers have already garnered millions of views online. Built around Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the movie follows a young boy whose passion for music leads him into extraordinary adventures.

"I first pitched this idea to [Pixar chief creative officer] John Lasseter back in September of 2011," director Lee Unkrich says by phone. "He went for it, was very excited about it. At that moment I was excited as well, because it was an idea that seemed very promising and ripe with potential."

Misgivings set in almost at once as Unkrich realized the implications of having a story take place during what is celebrated as a public holiday in Mexico. "I was struck by the enormous responsibility that was suddenly on my shoulders to tell the story respectfully and correctly," he says. "I knew that it was going to take extensive research; I also knew that we were going to have to surround ourselves with a lot of cultural experts and advisors in the course of making the movie. And that's just what we did."

Concerned about representing the Mexican community accurately, Unkrich also had to deal with a holiday tied to Christian observances for All Saints Day and All Souls Day. "But when you learn about Día de los Muertos, you discover that it's rooted in ancient, indigenous cultures in Mexico," he adds. "It goes all the way back to Aztec times. We tried to make use of all the different iconographies, religious and otherwise, that have been a part of the celebration. But ultimately our film is not a religious story, it's a story about this boy uncovering a mystery in his family's past."

Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) has been forbidden by his family to perform music. But he finds a connection with Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer he sees in old movies on TV. In search of Ernesto, Miguel is transported to a city of the dead, where he must find a way to return to the living.

Like many Pixar projects, Coco started out in an entirely different direction. "It always happens," Unkrich admits cheerfully. "With the very first idea, we were telling a story that we realized was kind of being told from our Western perspective, the thematics of which were antithetical to what Día de los Muertos is all about. We were telling a story about a kid who's learning to deal with grief, learning to move on. But as we researched more into Día de los Muertos, we found that is not at all what the celebration is about. It's about never forgetting. It's about an obligation to always remember people and pass their stories along and remember them joyously every year."

After eight months' work, Unkrich and his team had to scrap everything and start from scratch. "This happens on our films," Unkrich reasons. "If you talk to Pete Docter about his film Up, he had a completely different story that he was pitching and working on for a long time before it finally became what it is."

Pixar has been so successful over the years in part because it is willing to give its creative teams the luxury of failure, of hitting dead ends and starting over. "We don't see it as wasted time or wasted effort because you start to learn what you really care about," Unkrich argues. "You start to find the ideas that are personal to you and resonate with you. You often can't just make those up on the spot at the beginning of the process. It's a journey, it's a collaboration with a number of people, and it's a lot of time spent locked in your room talking, starting to figure out what the movie could and should be."

Pixar movies are also famous for being backed by meticulous research, and Coco is no exception. Unkrich and his team made several trips to Mexico, studying art and music, embedding themselves in families to see how they celebrated Día de los Muertos, taking photographs and videos. They also regularly shared their work with cultural advisors to make sure they were accurate and respectful.

"Of course, we're talking about people," the director adds, "and no matter where you live, in what culture or what country, everyone's different, every family's different. So there's no one right way. But we do want to at least make sure that the film itself would feel familiar to people who grew up in a Latino culture, or more specifically grew up in Mexico."

Unkrich chooses his words carefully, talking about the "specificity" of experiences and how gathered material will "infuse" its way into a project. He joined Pixar in 1994 as an editor, taking on co-directing chores for Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. His last outing, Toy Story 3, his first as a solo director, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Unkrich's co-director on Coco is Adrian Molina, a Pixar animator and storyboard artist of Mexican-American descent. Molina also wrote the screenplay.

"One big idea we explore in Coco is what it feels like to be in a family that doesn't necessarily agree with or respect your choices or passions," Unkrich observes. "Miguel loves music, but his family has this bizarre rule that music's not allowed.

"I was lucky to grow up in a family that supported my creative endeavors. Whatever it was I wanted to do, my family was supportive of that. But I work with a lot of other folks whose parents were not supportive of them getting into a creative field. They wanted them to go a more traditional route, be an attorney or a doctor. They had a lot of struggles along the way. So we spent a lot of time talking to them, finding out what it was like for them."

Cocobreaks new ground for Pixar not just for its Mexican setting, but for its music. (The score is by Up and Inside Out composer Michael Giacchino.) Unkrich thinks it's the most musical film the studio's ever made, "in terms of actually having characters performing music in the course of the story and having the film kind of infused with music.

"But it's not a traditional musical. It's not a break-out-into-song musical where the characters are singing about their feelings spontaneously. It's much more akin to a film like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where there's a lot of music in the course of the storytelling and there's a lot of performance of music, and that music is thematically tied into the story that's being told and is also reflective of the culture that's being explored."

Unkrich's team not only dove into different genres of music in Mexican culture, they shot reference footage of musicians performing, so that screen characters would be playing their instruments accurately. The guitarists finger the correct chords and strum in time, for example. And Ernesto's character is drawn in part from real-life performers like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.

Unkrich was equally careful about researching art, spending time with local artisans, even collecting works to help inspire designs in the film. Unkrich cites Mesoamerican art as an influence, especially in the buildings found in Coco.

Even in the trailers, it's obvious that Coco will be visually spectacular. It features the bold colors and strong figures familiar from Mexican art, as well as densely detailed vistas of the afterlife. One of the bigger challenges artists faced was how to animate the skeletons found there.

"Animated skeletons, they're usually there to be scary, sometimes to be funny," Unkrich points out. "But I hadn't seen any examples of skeleton characters where the audience could actually connect with them on an emotional level. Care about them, be able to look past the fact that they were skeletons, be able to see their souls."

The skeletons also had to perform, to express inner consciousness, in ways that wouldn't distance viewers. "That's what led to the decision of giving the skeletons eyeballs," the director says. "You don't often see eyeballs in skeletons, it's definitely a bit of a leap logically. But it was important to do so that the audience could really connect with the characters."

Those characters also connect Coco with one of the breakthrough Walt Disney sound cartoons, an eerie 1929 "Silly Symphony" called The Skeleton Dance. Taking inspiration from the past is another way Pixar movies have found such a wide audience.

"Do we have a house style? We always have and likely always will try to make films that will appeal to all audiences," Unkrich says. "We don't make movies for kids, we don't make movies just for adults. We try to make movies for everybody. It's a really hard thing to do. That has been an underlying tenet of everything we've done."

Unkrich thinks the studio's creative philosophy has remained essentially the same since 1995's Toy Story. "I don't think it's changed, but I think our films have gotten more depth over time. Not that they lacked depth at the beginning. I think just as we've all grown up and become more mature adults and have had life experiences, all of that has a way of infusing itself into the stories that we tell."

Pixar's roots are in computer technology, and the studio has been on the forefront of advances in animation software. "We're at the point now where we can do just about anything we want to do," Unkrich points out. "That wasn't always the case. At the very beginning we had to pick subject matter that was doable in the medium that we were working in. But now we can do just about anything. The limiting factors are can we do it in a reasonable amount of time and on a set budget.

"On Coco our biggest challenge was its scope. It's a big adventure that moves through a lot of environments. We had to invent this whole land of the dead, create that world onscreen and populate it with thousands and thousands of characters. It's exciting now that whatever story we can dream up we can put up onscreen. That wasn't always the case. It's kind of cool that we're at that point now."